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You Are What You Eat — The (No) Meat Experiment Part II

15 Jun

Food, Inc. has been in my Netflix queue for months. I finally got to it last Thursday.

I expected to be surprised — shocked, even — at the state of our food plants and harvesting practices. Instead, I was outright appalled. And incredibly thankful that I had zero meat in my system, because I really would have thrown up.

The general and guiding premise of the documentary (produced and directed by Robert Kenner) is that virtually all of the food we consume is controlled and distributed by a handful of large corporations that are focused solely on making money. (Favorite film stats: In the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled about 25 percent of the market, and there were thousands of slaughterhouses in the U.S. In 2008, the top five beef packers controlled 80 percent of the market, and there were 13 slaughterhouses in the U.S.) They make LOTS of money, and they will cut whatever corners they can to make more of it, regardless of the nutritional, ethical or environmental consequences. Of course, there are government agencies put in place to protect us and our planet, but to borrow from Skinny Bitch, none of the people running these food companies, nor the organizations supposedly regulating them (USDA and FDA), nor the politicians we elect and they lobby (and it should be pointed out that these are often all the same people) give a shit about your health. They care about money. And, to be fair, a desperate need for money is how many of our food problems started.

I won’t dictate the whole film or transcribe the hours of research I’ve  done since watching it, but I have two primary takeaways that I think should be discussed: Beef (aka Corn) and Chicken. (I’m not touching on the treatment of these animals just yet, but we will get there.)


Instead of allowing our cattle to graze on grass the way they have for thousands of years, we now feed them corn.

Corn, tasty as it is, may be the most vitriolic word in food production. It hinders the environment and the economy, and for the sake of this single issue, it compromises our cows. (Caution: Necessary generalizations ahead.) Corn subsidies — price supports that keep the price of the product below the cost of production — were instituted during the Great Depression (the Ag Act of 1938, to be specific, which also included cotton and wheat) to help farmers stay afloat. Seventy-ish years later, we don’t have nearly the same need for these supports, but they remain intact, meaning that the government — and not the market — controls the demand for corn. The government pays farmers to grow corn, and with no market ceiling, farmers grow as much as they can to get the most money from the government. To keep the subsidies intact (read: prices low), we have had to develop uses for mass quantities of corn. (Another fun fact: Thirty percent of the land in the U.S. is used for corn production.) Thus, we have invented awesome products like high-fructose corn syrup and enabled outstanding practices like making cows eat corn instead of grass. (Corn subsidies are also the reason the 2005 Energy Policy Act mandates that ethanol be blended into vehicle fuel, but again, we’re sticking to the cows here.)

High-fructose corn syrup is bad. It’s like sugar, but worse. It’s why soft drinks are bad for you. And also why they’re so cheap. Lesson here: stay away from high-fructose corn syrup. (But good luck staying away from all corn products. Here are a few, found in virtually every processed food in the grocery store, because corn is so damn cheap companies would be stupid NOT to use it:

Cellulose, Xylitol, Maltodextrin, Ethylene, Gluten, Fibersol-2, Citrus Cloud Emulsion, Inosital, Fructose, Calcium Stearate, Saccharin, Sucrose, Sorbital, Citric Acid, Di-glycerides, Semolina, Sorbic Acid, Alpha Tocopherol, Ethyl Lactate, Polydextrose, Xantham Gum, White Vinegar, Ethel Acetate, Fumaric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Baking Powder, Zein, Vanilla Extract, Margarine, and Starch.)

Feeding cattle corn instead of grass may be worse than high-fructose corn syrup. When cows eat grass, they naturally participate in the circle of life. They eat grass. They digest grass easily. The graze and poop, and that mud and organic material grows more grass. When cows eat corn, they digest it weirdly. They get fatter faster. They also produce new and dangerous stands of E.coli (which, on its own in the intestines of cows, horses, humans and other warm-blooded things, is harmless). And instead of walking and pooping and cultivating the earth, they eat and stand and poop — all together. Beef cattle are packed together all their lives, eating, standing and living non-stop in their own and each other’s feces. They’re slaughtered in them, too. (By the way, the dangerous strands of E.coli are most commonly spread by fecal-oral transmission.)

But that’s not even the worst part.

Eighty percent of E.coli strands could be eliminated by allowing cattle to eat grass instead of corn (for just five days, according Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto). That seems like a pretty simple solution, right? Not according to the people who make our food. Instead of giving up the the cheap corn and giving these animals some land, beef corporations “fix” the problem post-slaughter in their production plants — by cleansing the meat with ammonia.

Sit with that for a second.


A chicken naturally grows to maturity in 70-90 days. We have engineered them to have mature muscles in about 45. And since we love to eat big, juicy chicken breasts so much, our chickens have also been injected with hormones and engineered to have abnormally large breasts not in proportion to the rest of their bodies.

Chickens, like cows, are raised packed together — and usually in windowless chicken houses — but it’s probably a good thing for them. They are so genetically engineered that most cannot stand or walk, trying to hold their abnormal weights on their normal legs, for more than a few seconds or steps.

So, inaddition to juicy chicken breasts, you get hormones. Lots of ‘em. Yummy.

Food, Inc. touches on a number of other issues, including the abhorrent treatment of factory workers, the corruption of our food agencies and the unstoppable greed that is gunning for and ruining hard-working farmers across the country.

But this experiment is about the actual meat. The film introduces a few farmers who raise their animals and conduct their farms ethically and nutritionally, and I respect them so much for it. But my first experiment lesson can be summed up in a sentence. Or, as it may be, a title. The Meat Experiment has officially become the The No Meat Experiment.

“There is this deliberate veil, this curtain that’s drawn between us and where our food is coming from. The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.”

– Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, quoted in Food, Inc.


The Meat Experiment

9 Jun

I have decided to experiment with my diet.

I grew up eating and enjoying wonderful, Mama-cooked, meat-centric meals every night, but the idea of killing another being for my supper has always made me flinch. In response, I’ve spent two decades trying not to think about it or letting myself feel all of the ethical guilt that picks at my soul.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve lost my appetite for red meat. I never order it and only eat it when it is prepared for me, usually at cook outs with my family. Increasingly, I’ve also realized how little most meat actually means to my taste buds. I’d rather eat a black bean or veggie burger than a turkey one. I always order hummus before chicken fingers. And it is a rare day that I crave actual BBQ more than the okra and macaroni & cheese that usually accompany it. Additionally, I have a growing fascination with veganism and its personal and global benefits. But I love seafood, and the idea of giving up eggs, ice cream and cheese kind of makes me want to cry. Not to mention, a vegan lifestyle seems awfully difficult and time-consuming to maintain.

All of this food contemplation has led me to experimentation. I haven’t eaten meat since Monday, and although that’s not long enough to notice any significant effects, I haven’t missed it at all. I’m going to Maine this weekend, and I’m guessing there will be lots of lobster involved in our adventures, so I’m officially deeming this the pescetarian period. The plan is to transition to vegetarianism next weekend, take another pescetarian break for the Fourth of July and then try out veganism some time next month.

I really have no idea what to expect. I can’t imagine never having fried chicken or crab legs or Ben and Jerry’s again, but I’m open to whatever discoveries appear and ready to chronicle my findings. And if anyone has any advice or suggestions, please let me know!

Cherish and Foster — Happy Earth Day!

22 Apr

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”
– E.B. White

Image from Mother Nature Network.

Today is Earth Day. As far as holidays go, it’s a fairly new one at the sprite young age of 41. It’s not religious (though this year it does share April 22 with Good Friday) or patriotic, so banks aren’t closed and none of us get the day off. In school, we got to draw planets and talk about recycling, but as adults (or fake adults), we usually gloss over it.

I sincerely hope we can all break that habit today.

I am no hardcore Green Goddess. I drive by myself to work every day. I have been known to go above 68 in the winter and below 78 in the summer. I can’t rattle off climate change statistics, and I leave a light on for my dog most days.

But I do fancy myself an advocate of this fabulous planet we call home. I don’t believe in water bottles or styrofoam cups. (You wouldn’t either if you had my awesome collection of oversized mugs or my Pinkie Masters water/Diet Coke cup for the office.) I think recycling should be required by law. (Hey Canada!) And I think people who buy Hummers have corrupt souls.

And so, on this special day when we celebrate the Earth (as well as the day that Jesus offered himself so that we could continue to enjoy the Earth), I vow to do more.

To recycle every piece of paper and wine bottle and plastic grocery bag.

To walk — not drive — to the bars and Starbucks and maybe even yoga tomorrow morning.

To buy all of my friends filtering water bottles (Bobble: $10, made of sustainable, colorful awesomeness).

To vote for candidates willing to remove the $75 million liability cap for oil spills (Because a year and two days after the devastating BP spill that wrecked an already reeling Gulf Coast and, oh yeah, killed 11 people, this cap still stands, and deep-water, off-shore drilling is still commonplace.) and fight for the expanded use of alternate energy.

To unplug appliances.

To do more research on food and farmers and buy products that support sustainability.

To think more and do more and try more.

None of us can do it all. No single person is going to save this world from the vast and alarming damage we are collectively inflicting on it daily. But we can all do something. Even if it’s a little something.

Make a formal pledge. Or a personal one. Do one thing a day. Or one a week. Do whatever you can. Because just like we each have only one body, we have only one Earth.

And we should celebrate her every day.

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
– Wendell Berry

“The Earth is what we all have in common.”
– Wendell Berry